Caves of St. Louis County in trouble

Discarded with impunity

The Caves of St. Louis County and the Bridges of Madison County share a common theme: loss.

The former, a scholarly paper that appears as the sole entry of the journal Missouri Speleology (Vol. 45, No. 1, 2007) is a description of some of St. Louis County’s 127 known caves and a warning that development over the past two centuries has eliminated or destroyed many caves in a state that could quite rightly call itself the Cave State. The latter is a tear-jerking novel, made into a movie by Clint Eastwood about a doomed, unlikely love affair, a hallmark of the ’90s with all the permanence of the Backstreet Boys.

Caves, though, are in trouble, at least in St. Louis County, Missouri, says co-author Robert Criss, Ph.D., professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Caves have been discarded by developers with the same impunity as trees,” said Criss. “Things are developing so rapidly in St. Louis County and elsewhere that we should try a little harder to protect our natural habitat. There is no law in Missouri to protect caves on private land, and we don’t seem to have any protocol as to what is acceptable. The loss of caves is not on anyone’s radar screen, and I think it should be.”

Caves are a feature of karst terrain, along with sinkholes, springs, and “losing” streams that disappear into “swallow holes” and resurface in other areas. Criss and his collaborators, Washington University Earth and Planetary Sciences graduate student Jennifer Lippmann, Everett Criss and G.R. Osburn, studied most of the 127 reported caves in St. Louis County – which excludes St. Louis city – a county of 508 square miles with a population (2000 Census) of 1,016,315, comprising nearly one-third of the St. Louis area’s population of approximately 2.7 million.

Legendary caves of Missouri

Caves in this karst region are legendary, having served over time as beer storage sites, ballrooms, taverns, speakeasies and disposal sites. Farther north, outside Hannibal, who could forget Injun Joe’s lingering death in the cave that was gated after Tom and Becky Thatcher became lost there?

Like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the authors, using existing data of mostly paper documents, including maps, between 20 and 50 years old, but some extending into the late 19th century, located most of the 127 caves, whose aggregate length is more than four miles. The cave lengths, though, are exponentially distributed, with half of the caves less than 100 feet long, and the other full half of the aggregate length contained in just two caves, Cliff Cave and Cave of the Falls, both in the southeast part of the county.

They found that the entrances to at least two caves have undergone significant natural modification from breakdown or landslide processes. They also found that a far larger number – greater than 10 percent – have been highly modified or obliterated by suburban expansion in the county. At least twenty-four caves in all have been obliterated or made into culvert entrances. St. Louis County’s Metropolitan Sewer District even manages several caves as part of the sewer system that handles street runoff. Indeed, there is a picture in the journal paper of a typical suburban yard, the homeowner standing next to a storm sewer culvert, which is the entrance to Fogelbach Cave.

During the project Criss and his associates located and examined the caves, wrote new reports for them, and typed-up and entered all the preexisting reports into the Missouri Speleological Survey electronic database. In the historic reports, multiple names or index numbers were sometimes found for the same cave, or the same name and index number were applied to different caves. The authors updated the records and visited many of the caves, refining the previously reported locations with a Global Positioning System (GPS). It was from these visits and checking physical features versus previous reports that they determined the natural modifications to the entrances of two caves.

Caving adventure, astonishment

The caving experience was not without adventure and astonishment. Lippmann early on came face-to-face with a startled animal in one cave.

‘I was in a tight, watery spot when suddenly found myself face-to-face with a beaver,” she said. “Many people do not realize how many caves there are in this area, and yet caving lets you experience a whole different world that is mysterious and beautiful.

Criss and Lippmann say that caves are the homes of many species, including several types of bats and salamanders, the Ozark cave crayfish, amphipods, isopods and many others. In addition, some species, such as raccoons, bears and the beaver Lippmann encountered, use caves as temporary domiciles.

Caving should be done with proper respect for potential dangers and for preserving these natural features and their inhabitants, the authors said.

“It’s hard to measure the impact of filling in caves on habitat and species loss,” Criss said. “I’m not saying I want all development to stop or that owners shouldn’t sell to developers. My point is that we really haven’t sufficiently discussed the issue.”

Another karst feature, the sinkhole, is little understood in St. Louis County. In county parks that have not been developed, topographic maps show numerous sinkholes, as many as 100 per square mile. Many other areas including downtown St. Louis had similar numbers of sinkholes before development obscured them.

“There are thousands of sinkholes in the county that people are unaware of, as well as maybe one hundred more caves that we haven’t yet been able to find,” Criss said.

Together, the issue of sinkholes, caves and springs, the components of a karst geological system, has created structural problems in suburban housing, and ecological and water pollution concerns.

“Disregard for springs, caves and sinkholes can lead to their destruction and can result in engineering problems for structures built on karst terrain,” the authors write.

Outgrowths of this project include Lippmann’s master’s degree thesis and a paper on stress effects in caves by Everett Criss.